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The bell tower at St. Francis de Sales School collapsed in April, the day after the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had signed a contract to get it stabilized.
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Sister Maureen Carroll (left) points out to Faye Lohr the spot where her husband, Gordon Lohr, crashed through the chapel’s ceiling during an inspection
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Belmead’s original owner had more than 600 titles in his personal library
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St. Emma’s Rockcastle Band performed at various functions in the area.
Now, as then, a profound peace and serenity settles along the James River about 30 miles west of downtown Richmond. Deer graze through wheat fields, and bluebirds perch on white wooden crosses in a historic cemetery. A winding lane meanders uphill to the 1848 Belmead mansion overlooking the river, a body of water the Indians called Powhatan. The quiet is deep, muffling memories of Confederate cavalry hoofbeats, slaves laboring in tobacco fields and corps of cadets calling cadence.
The schools closed in the early 1970s, when integration expanded public-education options for minorities. Since then, Belmead's 2,265 acres, a patchwork of rolling woodland and open pasture with a few surviving buildings, have remained in the hands of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. A handful of nuns, all of them well beyond middle age, struggle to maintain the property while working and praying for its continued purpose and tranquility.
In December 2006, the sisters, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the James River Association agreed to place 1,000 acres of the property in a conservation easement, a perpetual protection against development. Tenant farmers lease some of the other land, as does the Belmead Stable and Riding Club, which maintains miles of bridle paths.
"We figure we have a five-year window to preserve the place, endow it and set up a staff to carry it on," says Sister Maureen Carroll. "We don't have the money, but selling it is our last option."
Carroll is the executive director of FrancisEmma Inc., a nonprofit formed by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to protect and appropriately develop the property.
The Belmead mansion, designed by the prominent 19th-century architect Alexander Jackson Davis, was Philip St. George Cocke's personal style statement — a departure from the era's typical white-pillared Greek Revival plantation houses.
According to a 2009 study led by University of Virginia professor Daniel Bluestone, Cocke's slaves built the house, as well as a granary, mills, bridges and fences using stone, clay and timber from the plantation.
Born April 17, 1809, Cocke was an avid agriculturalist and president of the Virginia Agricultural Society. He attended U. Va. and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy as a lieutenant. In 1834, he resigned from the Army, married and began to amass a fortune from his plantations in Mississippi and Virginia. When the Civil War loomed, he raised a cavalry unit and threw himself into defending the Confederacy. Accounts of his life say disappointments in the war shattered Cocke's mind, leading, perhaps, to his suicide (a pistol shot to the head) on the side lawn of his beloved Belmead mansion on the day after Christmas in 1861.
From that era of enslavement and violence arose a haven ahead of its time. St. Emma opened in 1895, originally for the sons and grandsons of slaves. St. Francis de Sales followed in 1899. Both schools brought order and peace to the property, along with numerous students.
"I was a timid little boy when I came here," says Cedric Gambrell, a 1966 St. Emma grad who now lives in Virginia Beach. "I became a man who could go out and deal with the world."
"Children were sent here from areas where segregation affected the quality of education and to escape the fray of the civil rights movement," says Chase Jackson, a Norfolk native; art director at the Center for Community Arts in Cape May, N.J.; and a 1966 St. Francis graduate. "Some were kids on the cusp of trouble who needed a little more discipline or kids whose parents worked multiple jobs or worked overseas and wanted a safe place to keep them off the streets.
"Being at St. Francis changed my life," says Jackson, who was, she says, one of the more than mischievous teens. "There was a feeling of family here."
The "family" ties endure for Jackson and a dozen other East Coast alumni, including Cobbs, Gambrell and Madison, who sweated through a warm May day lugging bricks, trimming shrubbery, planting flowers — whatever they could do to spruce up what's left of their alma maters.
Drawn by more than the usual alumni nostalgia, the alumni devote a day or two (or three) each year to assist the sisters — giving back and reconnecting with some of their closest friends.
The graduates of St. Emma and St. Francis, as well as thousands more across the country, owe their lives and livelihoods to Katharine Drexel.
She was born in 1858 to a socialite's life as the daughter of Francis Drexel, a Philadelphia banker, business partner of J. P. Morgan and philanthropic multimillionaire.
Her mother died a month after her birth, and her father remarried — to Emma Bouvier, the great-grand aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Katharine already had an older sister, Elizabeth, and Emma and Francis had one child, Louise.
Emma died in 1883, and Francis followed just two years later. Katharine Drexel and her two sisters inherited their parents' vast wealth and passion for philanthropy. Katharine's concern for American Indians led the sisters to reservations, distributing food and clothing and setting up schools for the children. Then they expanded their charitable focus to the education of African-American children, particularly in the Southeast.
Drexel pleaded with Pope Leo XIII for missionaries to staff the schools. He responded by suggesting that she become a missionary. She listened, taking her vows when she was 30 and organizing the missionary congregation of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to oppose racial injustice.
She inspired her sister and brother-in-law, Louise Drexel Morrell and Col. Edward Morrell, to buy Belmead in 1893 and then the neighboring plantation, Mount Pleasant. The couple deeded the properties to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and opened St. Emma at Belmead in 1895 as a military/vocational boarding school.
Half a mile away, on an adjacent hilltop at Mount Pleasant, Drexel began construction on St. Francis de Sales school. The first student, Mary Boyd, an American Indian from Wyoming, enrolled in 1899.
The schools were two of more than 60 schools and missions founded by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
St. Emma combined military discipline with an academic education and practical vocational instruction, including carpentry, masonry and agriculture. Students honed their skills by building many of the campus structures.
"This school was needed — others taught too much book stuff and not enough practical," former St. Emma teacher Al Brooks says. "For 15 years, I taught animal husbandry here, and we had Angus, Holsteins, a few Jerseys, the most modern piggery in the country and a chicken house."
Brooks, now in his 70s, was a Brother of the Holy Ghost. He ultimately left the order, retired, married and moved to Blackstone. But he continues to volunteer at Belmead, working on a memorial garden situated near the site of the demolished agricultural building.
In St. Emma's heyday, the campus had 50 buildings in addition to the Belmead mansion, although most were razed when the school closed. The school produced its own food, except for salt and sugar, and operated a store open to the public.
Records from 1912 specify that cadets had to be at least 15 years old, 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds. Tuition ranged from $9 to $12 a month; room and board cost $5 a month; and uniforms were $2 a month. Rules were strict — no profanity, gambling, card playing or throwing dice. Cadets were required to write home at least once a month, and the mail was censored. Full-dress drills took place every Sunday on the parade grounds.
But there was also time for sports — and the weekly socials with the girls from St. Francis were a highlight.
"We'd march over to St. Francis in our uniforms, and the girls would be seated with an empty chair between them," recalls Gambrell. "We'd come to attention in front of the girls, then sit and socialize until about midnight, when we marched back to St. Emma's in the dark — one of my favorite memories."
Drexel spared no expense when she built St. Francis, a 75,000-square-foot, three-story brick school. The towered, buttressed, U-shaped school building housed classrooms, dormitory rooms, parlors, dining rooms and a spectacular chapel.
"Katharine built the school thinking these children deserved the best, a beautiful atmosphere to grow up in," says Sister Carroll, adding that all the construction materials came from the plantation, except the marble from the Carolinas, the statuary from Italy and the stained-glass chapel windows made in Richmond by glass artist Henry Bunce.
For a few years after the schools closed in the early 1970s, Youth With a Mission, a Christian missionary organization, used the St. Francis building, but since then, the structure has stood empty and deteriorating. The columned bell tower toppled in April, and the chapel — more of a mini cathedral — has suffered years of water damage from a leaking roof.
St. Emma stood vacant for 14 years until educator Dr. Lou Ross Hopewell fell in love with the campus and opened Blessed Sacrament High School at Belmead in 1987. The small, nonprofit, coed day school flourished in the mansion and several other new buildings Hopewell built, graduating about 120 students in eight years. But in 1997, when Hopewell and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament couldn't agree on a lease renewal, Hopewell reluctantly left to merge her school with Huguenot Academy in Richmond. And Belmead was empty again.
Carroll says that the Belmead mansion that once housed St. Emma is still substantially in good condition but needs cosmetic work.
But is St. Francis, recently named to Preservation Virginia's 2010 Most Endangered Historic Sites list, fixable? It could take deep pockets, says Gordon Lohr, retired from Preservation Virginia and now a private consultant on historic buildings. He met the sisters almost 20 years ago, when the real-estate firm he worked with sent him out to scout the plantation for a potential golf-course development. After walking the property (and falling through the chapel roof), he advised the sisters not to sell, telling them that what they had could not be replaced. His boss wasn't pleased, but Lohr slept better at night.
Since then, he's served as a volunteer advisor to the sisters and led the rehabilitation of the plantation's 1841 stone granary.
"When I first saw the granary, it was in such bad shape, it was scary," Lohr says as he walks through the reconstruction-in-progress, pointing out how local craftsmen have seamlessly matched their work to the original woodwork.
With the granary restoration under way, FrancisEmma Inc. held a preservation charette in the spring, funded by Preservation Virginia and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Sixty preservation specialists studied how to merge the Belmead property's historical integrity with future uses. Proposals include an active-adult community, an event venue, a school for teaching historic preservation, and a vineyard or brewery with a restaurant in the granary. The sisters are weighing their options.
"Right now our endowment fund is being eaten up by the fallen bell tower, but we hope to eventually make a substantial income from Belmead and a moderate income from St. Francis," Carroll says. "We pray for the future — and we have our miracles."